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Balanced roster, team chemistry will aid UPenn’s quest for a winning season

The Quakers don’t have the star power of other programs, but do boast an impressive mix of experience and raw talent

Quakers midfielder Joe Swenson in a spring exhibition match against Pitt
Matt Ralph

Going into their season opener tonight at Monmouth, the Penn Quakers doesn’t have the kind of headline grabbing stars or proven goal scorers that can sometimes single-handedly carry a team to the postseason.

But what they do have is a roster blending experienced upperclassmen and an influx of young talent that came in ready to compete.

“I think the strength of this team is the team and that may sound cliche or funny but I really do believe it is a faceless, starless group and I think what's going to make this group successful is their ability to play with each other and for each other,” said head coach Rudy Fuller, who is entering his 20th season at the helm in West Philly.

Right back Sam Wancowicz is a perfect example of this.

Though the senior from Fallston, Maryland has started from day one and has pro potential, the right back plays in one of the more unheralded positions in college soccer.

He does get forward a lot - he has seven goals and four assists over his first three seasons - but his contributions to the team don’t always show up in a score sheet.

“He's just a guy who works hard for the team and is very effective,” Fuller said. “He’s certainly a guy we are going to lean on.”

Wyomissing native Austin Kuhn and Joe Swenson are the only other seniors on the roster though Swenson has another season of eligibility left after this year. Swenson will be called on this season to contribute more to an offense that lost more than half of its goals to graduation (Alec Neumann led the team with nine, Matt Poplawski had four).

“We're going to miss those seniors but we have people coming in and people here ready to step in and take on a bigger role for us,” Swenson said.

Sophomore attacking midfielder Dami Omitaomu was second among returners in goals last season (behind Wancowicz’s four) with three. Sophomore forward Sam Hefter had two goals and junior forward Jerel Blades, who didn’t score last season, found the back of the net in the spring exhibition season.

Other key returners include sophomore midfielder Brandon Bartel, junior left back Gavin Barger (who spent the summer with West Chester United), junior goalkeeper Etan Mabourakh and Bryn Mawr native Aramis Kouzine, who had a goal in his first season last year.

Joining the returners is an incoming recruiting class 11 players deep that includes Development Academy alums Amado Lozano (San Jose Earthquakes), RC Williams (Continental FC), Giacomo Giordano (Continental FC), Jake Kohlbrenner (Empire United) and Wes Maki (IMG Academy). The other freshmen in the class include midfielders Joey Bhangdia, Nicky Goldlust and Henry Sherwood Caballero, goalkeeper Erik Ekstrom and defenders Alex Touche and Filip Guhr.

“I think the newcomers have fit right in,” Fuller said.

After tonight’s season opener on the road against Monmouth - the first meeting between the two schools - the Quakers will have a quick turnaround, returning home Sunday night to host Bowling Green. Both teams will present challenges to a team, like all other Ivy League schools, starting its season a week later.

“We know what the challenges are having only been back two weeks and we’re playing our first game against a team that has already played twice,” Fuller said. “But it really only plays a role in the opening weekend.”

The Quakers only tune-up was against Division 2 West Chester last Friday. For Wancowicz and Kuhn tonight’s game will be the last season opener of their college careers.

“Obviously it’s a pretty big year for myself and Austin Kuhn,” Wancowicz said. “We want to leave in a better place than the program was when we got here.”

To do that they’ll need to advance to the NCAA Tournament, which the team last made in 2013. The team has posted losing records in each of the last three seasons though they finished a respectable 5-6-6 last season.

A grueling Ivy League slate and a challenging non-conference schedule won’t make that easy. But Fuller is confident that if his players focus on smaller, attainable goals - winning each day in training so to speak - this group will be able to achieve bigger things.

The leaders on the team, like Wancowicz, have bought into that philosophy and worked hard to pass it on to the new additions.

“Everyone loves individual accolades,” Wancowicz said. “But with this team it’s more about our record than who won player of the year, who won rookie of the year.”